Japan announced that it will resume commercial whaling by withdrawing from an international organization set up under a treaty signed in the U.S. capital 72 years ago.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan will leave the International Whaling Commission, which will drop to 88 member nations, and take up whaling again in April.
Japan was disappointed that some factions of the IWC focus solely on protecting whale stocks, he said, though the organization's mandate extends beyond conservation to developing the whaling industry.
"Because some countries focus just on protection, we were not able to find a way to compromise or reach an agreement," he told a videotaped press conference. "So it's impossible for us to strike a balance between protection and sustainable commercial whaling."
The commercial hunts, he said, will be limited to Japan’s territorial waters and the 323-kilometer exclusive economic zone that extends from its coastlines, but the nation will not undertake annual whaling expeditions to the Antarctic and northwest Pacific oceans.
"We would like to convey or transfer the commercial whaling culture to the next generation as we resume our activity," said Suga.
The IWC, with a secretariat based in Cambridge, U.K., was set up under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling signed in Washington on December 2, 1946. The treaty's preamble says its purpose is "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry."
As the world's whale population declined, however, the conservation-minded IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982.
Despite the international ban, Japan, along with Iceland and Norway, continued to hunt whales and sell the meat and blubber used for oil. Japan's annual Antarctic whale hunt has been conducted in the name of scientific research into whale species populations.
Conservationists have long criticized the hunt as political cover for commercial hunting, since the meat is sold in Japan. The United Nations’ International Court of Justice, or ICJ, said in a 2014 ruling that there was no scientific basis for Japan's Antarctic hunt.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, also said in an October decision that Japan has been illegally hunting whales and selling the meat and blubber commercially in the name of scientific research.
Governments and international organizations criticized Japan's decision. Australia said it was “extremely disappointed,” while New Zealand called Japanese whaling an “outdated and unnecessary practice.”
Humane Society International said it feared the start of "a new chapter of widespread renegade slaughter of whales for profit" if Japan recruits other pro-whaling nations to leave the International Whaling Commission.
"Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of international law," Kitty Block, HSI's president, said in a statement. "For decades, Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling."
Greenpeace International condemned Japan's decision, saying overfishing in Japan's coastal waters and high seas areas led to the depletion of many whale species. Most whale populations have not yet been recovered, it said, including larger whales such as blue whales, fin whales and sei whales.
"The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures," Sam Annesley, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement.
"As a country surrounded by oceans where people’s lives have been heavily reliant on marine resources," he said, "it is essential for Japan to work towards healthy oceans. Japan’s government has so far failed to resolve these problems."
Greenpeace also noted that Japan will serve as chair of the Group of Twenty major economies in 2019, and it called on the nation "to recommit to the IWC and prioritize new measures for marine conservation" before taking up that leadership position.
Earlier this month, G-20 leaders jointly urged reform of the World Trade Organization and greater efforts to fight global warming, though its final 31-point communiqué noted the United States planned to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
A novelty item
Japan said it plans to keep participating in the IWC's scientific meetings and conferences as an observer despite its exit from the organization and treaty, which took effect in 1948.
And, despite Japan's insistence on maintaining "commercial whaling culture" for future generations, its consumption of whale meat has become something of a novelty item.
Annual per capita consumption of whale meat among the Japanese dropped from about 1.6 kilograms in 1960 down to zero kilograms in 2017, according to figures from Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Nonetheless, the ministry said in a statement that Japan's history of whaling, "from prehistoric times to the present, gave rise to the worship of whales and bore fruit in the culture witnessed today in whaling songs, dances and the various traditional handicrafts that have been handed down from generation to generation."
"Now is the time to acknowledge the importance of our whaling tradition and food culture," it said. "Japanese are and should be proud of this."